What’s on the Pitkin County ballot
October 9, 2009
ASPEN – You may not have heard much about it, but there’s a fall election coming in Pitkin and Eagle counties. There are important issues facing voters – three open seats onthe Aspen School District board, a proposed lodging tax in Aspen, a new energy-efficiency program in Pitkin and Eagle counties, and the prospect of a new indoor recreation center in the midvalley, among others.But don’t wait until the first Tuesday of November to get informed, because voters will not cast their ballots by going to a local polling place on Election Day. This is a mail-only election, which means voters need to watch their mailboxes. That’s where they’ll receive their ballot, and that’s where they’ll send it back to their county clerk. (Voters may also drop off their ballots at the clerk’s office.)We’ve assembled stories in this edition of the Times Weekly to acquaint readers with the issues on the ballot, but perhaps the most important election-related message this fall is: Mail-only.
Declining lodging rates in Aspen these days mean two things, according to proponents of a new marketing district and 1 percent lodging tax:• Visitors won’t feel the increase because hotel prices have dropped significantly, and• Without the added tax, declining lodging revenues will mean fewer bed-tax dollars to market the resort.The Aspen Lodging Association and Aspen Chamber Resort Association are pushing Referendum 5A on the Nov. 3 ballot, which proposes the formation of a marketing district and a 1 percent tax to be charged on lodging accommodations within the district. The revenues would go toward marketing the resort year-round. The tax would expire in 2015 unless voters extend it.The ballot question will not be posed to all city voters, though. Only voters who reside within the boundaries of the district can cast a vote on the measure. Estimates place the number of voters in the district between 530 and 700.Boundaries of the lodging district need not be contiguous; it includes the commercial core of Aspen, plus Aspen Meadows in the West End and the lodging at the base of Aspen Highlands.Aspen already has a 0.5 percent tax on lodging; the proposed tax in Referendum 5A would boost the total bed tax devoted to marketing to 1.5 percent.It’s not a tax on the local populace, stressed Warren Klug, a local hotelier, chairman of the ACRA board of directors and lodging association board member.”Local people, unless they’re putting up their relatives in a room or something, won’t be paying it,” he said. “It’s not a tax on locals. It’s a tax on rooms.”The measure has the support of the lodging association, given the evidence that marketing efforts do draw visitors. And, with room rates down by as much as 25 percent, according to ACRA President Debbie Braun, visitors aren’t going to feel a tax-related bump in rates.There has been no organized opposition to the measure, but Snow Queen Lodge owner Norma Dolle has voiced her displeasure. Potential visitors are increasingly sensitive to price, she said. Callers are asking not only about rates, but about what tax the resort charges, according to Dolle.The total sales tax charged on lodging in the city of Aspen will be 11 percent if Referendum 5A passes.If the measure fails, then ACRA estimates it will have about $435,000 next year for its marketing efforts, compared to $615,000 generated this year by the existing .5 percent bed tax and some city funding. That means the ACRA will produce fewer copies of the vacation planner provided to prospective visitors and it will be of lesser quality, according to Braun. This year, 80,000 copies of the glossy booklet were produced.In addition, public relations and advertising expenditures would be cut or curtailed.If the referendum passes, ACRA estimates it will have $1.2 to $1.3 million for marketing next year, Braun said. The budget will allow more of the sorts of marketing efforts that produced results – visitors booking stays – this year, plus some new initiatives like a greater push to secure group business and marketing dollars for new events, Braun said.Go to aspenchamber.org/almd for more information from the proponents’ perspective.- Janet Urquhart
Residents of Pitkin and Eagle counties will vote between now and Nov. 3 on proposals to harness public coffers for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects without costing taxpayers a dime.Both counties placed questions on the ballot to establish local improvement districts for energy-related projects. In both cases, the counties are seeking permission to issue bonds and create pools of money to finance the districts. If the measures win approval, then homeowners and businesses could apply for low-interest loans from that pool of money. The loans must be for energy efficiency improvements, like extra insulation, better windows and doors, or renewable energy projects like solar electric panels.The loans would be paid back through a special assessment on the property tax bills of participating owners. The loans would be tied to specific properties and stay with the property in the event of a sale.”County residents who choose not to participate would see no higher tax rates or new taxes,” said a website supporting the proposal. In other words, only people who choose to play must pay.Pitkin County is seeking permission to issue up to $7 million in bonds to fund the program. Eagle County’s ballot questions seeks permission for up to $10 million.Boulder County enacted a similar program in 2008 and received tremendous interest, according to Dylan Hoffman, Pitkin County energy program manager. Boulder County issued $6.6 million in a first round of loans, then $4.5 million in a second round because the initial demand was so high, Hoffman said.That represents an influx of more than $11 million into Boulder County’s economy during a recession. Hoffman said the program could inject money into Pitkin County’s economy by putting contractors, technicians and installers to work. Aspen Skiing Co. has endorsed the proposal and is helping to fund the campaign. “It’s another tool to enable energy solutions with no real downside,” said Skico Environmental Director Auden Schendler.He figures there are lots of Pitkin and Eagle residents who want to make their homes more efficient but don’t have the money to pursue it. This allows them to borrow the money and pay it back over time – like 15 to 20 years – through a higher property tax. The annual tax increase for participating property owners shouldn’t be high enough to put them in a bind.”This is the best role the government can play,” Schendler said. It stimulates energy efficiency and the economy without creating a burden for taxpayers. Any administrative cost paid by the county to manage the program could be repaid through the interest on the loans, according to proponents.The minimum amount that can be loaned in Boulder County is $3,000 and the maximum is $50,000 or 20 percent of the property’s actual value, whichever is less.Creation of the “energy smart loan program” is question 1A on both the Pitkin and Eagle ballots. More information is available on the proponents’ website at voteyes1a.org. No organized opposition has emerged.-Scott Condon
Aspen voters will vote this fall on how they’d like to vote in the future.The city of Aspen launched its first-ever Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) election this past May, but post-election doubts surfaced as to whether IRV is the right way to elect a mayor and City Council members. In response, the Aspen City Council this past summer agreed to put an advisory question on the November ballot that asks residents whether IRV should be scrapped or kept in place.If the majority of voters want to do away with IRV, then the council will explore alternatives. The city could go back to the previous method, which required that the mayor earn 50 percent plus one of the overall vote, and that council members get 45 percent plus one of the vote. Under the old method, if candidates didn’t reach those thresholds in the May election, then runoff elections were held in June between the top vote-getters.Another option could be winner take all with no majority needed, a system that Aspen used many years ago.Mayor Mick Ireland said there are other possibilities to consider too. If voters want to do away with IRV, he said, a citizen task force made up of apolitical residents who haven’t run for office in past elections would likely weigh the alternatives.”We want enough time to consider alternatives to IRV if voters don’t want IRV,” Ireland said, adding any change in the municipal election method would have to be approved by a majority of Aspen voters.If voters this fall direct city officials to scrap IRV, then a different method will be discussed for the next several months. A proposed amendment to the city charter could appear on the November 2010 ballot; if approved, then the new method would be valid for the May 2011 municipal election.Of course, voters could reject a charter amendment, and then the IRV system would remain in place until something else won approval.”We would have to make what’s in place work,” Ireland said. Aspenites voted in November 2007 to try the instant-runoff method in order to save the time, money and energy associated with holding two spring elections.After a specific IRV method – the first in the U.S. to incorporate multiple candidates for multiple seats – was chosen by a panel of city staff and citizens, the council adopted it.But IRV critics and City Hall observers decried the way IRV was administered and the lack of a full-blown audit of the results.Their questions and criticisms have raised enough doubt among some council members that they want to hear from voters again on IRV.Ireland said he has mixed feelings. On one hand, the results come in quicker and IRV doesn’t require an extra month of campaigning, as has been the case in the city’s traditional June runoff election. But the mayor agrees that the nine City Council candidates who ran this past spring didn’t get enough exposure; the additional month before the June runoff could have given the top vote-getters more time to distinguish themselves.Some council members say they don’t have enough confidence in, or an understanding of, the IRV process. Councilman Steve Skadron has questioned whether he understood IRV well enough to make an informed decision about the best tabulation method. And if he didn’t understand, he asks rhetorically, then did the voters?Councilman Torre has publicly stated his opposition to IRV because he likes having an extra month to learn about candidates. Councilman Dwayne Romero has heard from many community members that they prefer the traditional runoff system, as did he.-Carolyn Sackariason
Midvalley residents in the Crown Mountain Park and Recreation District are being asked to approve a modest, one-year-only property tax increase to fund planning for a new indoor recreation center and completion of outdoor amenities.Referendum 4A seeks to add a 0.36 mill levy to the recreation district’s existing 1 mill. The additional tax would raise an estimated $182,000.The question is on the ballots of some residents in both Eagle and Pitkin counties because the Crown Mountain district’s boundaries extend from the Dakota subdivision near El Jebel to Basalt and Old Snowmass.There is a minor glitch with the ballot wording, according to Mark Fuller, a consultant for the recreation district. The wording says the new mill levy will be .36 when, in fact, it would be 1.36 if the question is approved.”It could have been read that we’re decreasing rather than increasing the mill levy,” Fuller said.The mistake was made by recreation district officials, Fuller said, not by the clerks of Eagle or Pitkin counties. Crown Mountain’s board of directors met Oct. 7 to decide whether to withdraw the question or send information to voters explaining the glitch. They opted to send a postcard to voters to rectify the mistake.Proponents of the question initially wanted to seek bonding for a multimillion-dollar recreation center in the midvalley, but realized more details needed to be fleshed out, Fuller said. They also questioned the timing of such a proposed tax increase during a recession.If approved, the question now on the ballot would fund a study to determine the size and scope of the proposed center, and the cost to construct and operate it. The money would also be used to decide what additional facilities and equipment should be built at the old Mt. Sopris Tree Farm property, where the existing Crown Mountain Park is located. The tax increase will expire after one year. Supporters pitch the tax increase as a small price to pay for an essential planning process. The issue would add $14.50 to the tax bill of a $500,000 property, Fuller said.”It’s a pretty minuscule impact,” Fuller said. “We’re calling it (the equivalent of) a movie and a box of popcorn.”If the planning goes smoothly, recreation center proponents will place a bonding question on the November 2010 ballot.-Scott Condon
Voters in the Redstone Water and Sanitation District are being asked to authorize increased debt in order to replace their 35-year old sewage treatment plant, but unless the financial stars align in the district’s favor, the project won’t happen.The district is going ahead with Referendum 5B on the off chance that more federal stimulus money will become available and that the district can secure at least $1 million of those dollars, plus a favorable interest rate.”If more funds are made available, we’ll have voter approval in our pocket to go out and do something,” explained Brian Olesen, district manager. “It’s basically to take advantage of an opportunity if it arose.”The district borrowed funds and spent close to $200,000 to develop plans for the plant’s replacement with the hope of getting a piece of $30 million in stimulus funds plus interest rates in the zero to 2 percent range for qualifying projects. Ultimately, though, the state determined the Redstone plant replacement isn’t a top priority for the stimulus money, Olesen said.But, with plans for a new plant in hand, the district is going ahead with the referendum with the hope that the project will be a contender if more funds become available.The question seeks authorization to take on $2 million in debt (a $2.6 million repayment cost with interest) and to increase the district’s mill levy by no more than 5 mills to repay the loan.If the district gets $1 million in “debt forgiveness” from stimulus funds, plus a zero percent interest rate, the project would be doable – requiring payments of $50,000 annually for 20 years, Olesen said.The district’s existing plant serves 140 users in the Redstone vicinity, south of Carbondale in the Crystal River Valley. Its plant is 15 years beyond its 20-year life expectancy, Olesen said, but the district will continue to maintain it until it can replace it.-Janet Urquhart